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The Hindu Epic Mahabharata and its Main Characters

By CarolUpdated Apr. 20, 2021

The Mahabharata is one of the greatest ancient epics in India, along with the Ramayana. It consists of 100,000 verses making it four times the length of Ramayana and fifteen times the length of the bible. In fact, it is the world's longest epic poem ever written.

Hindus consider the Mahabharata to be one of their 'itihasa', meaning historical texts. The Kurukshetra War that takes place in the Mahabharata is believed to have happened about the 10th century BC.

The Mahabharata started as an orally-transmitted story from about the 8th or 9th century BC and its written form was only finalized in about the 4th century AD. The story was compiled by Vyasa who also appears in the story.

However, it is uncertain whether Vyasa was an actual person or just a symbolic author, as many other Hindu texts from different centuries are also attributed to Vyasa, and the literal meaning of Vyasa is actually 'compiler' or 'arranger'.

Quick Facts

  • The Kurukshetra War is believed to have been an actual war that took place in the 10th century.
  • The Mahabharata is the longest poem ever written.
  • The Bhagavad Gita, which is a very important ancient Hindu story, is a part of the Mahabharata.
  • Krishna who appears in the story is believed to be the 8th incarnation of Vishnu who was incarnated to restore dharma, or moral order.
  • The story of the Mahabharata essentially revolves around the rivalry between two bands of royal brothers.

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The 8 Main Protagonist and Antagonist Characters of the Mahabharata

The main characters in Mahabharata are mostly related to each other within a large extended family. However, their family tree is very complicated because most of them have multiple marriages and many children.


Yudhistira is the eldest of the Pandava brothers. He is perceived as the leader, rightful king, and commander in battle. He is also the one who gambled himself and his brothers into thirteen years of exile.


Arjuna is the second of the Pandava brothers. He is known as a very skilled archer and is popular with women. He managed to win Draupadi in a contest for suitors. However, Draupadi was not his only wife as he acquired other wives as well later in his journey.


Bhima is the third of the Pandava brothers. He is known as the strongest of the Pandavas. In the first exile, he married a demoness.


Draupadi is the princess of the Panchal Kingdom was famed for her beauty. Even though Arjuna won her in the contest to find her suitor, she eventually became the wife of all five Pandava brothers because of an accident involving Kunti, her mother-in-law.


Krishna is Arjuna's charioteer and advisor. He is also actually the 8th avatar of the god Vishnu who was incarnated to assist the Pandavas in defeating Duryodhana. In the story, Krishna advises Arjuna at the start of the battle through the poem the Bhagavad Gita.


Karna is a great archer who was mocked by Arjuna because of his low status. He sided with Duryodhana and finally died during the Kurukshetra War. After his death, the Pandavas found out that Karna was technically one of the Pandava brothers, as they have the same mother but different father.


Dhritarashtra is the blind king of Hastinapur. He is the elder brother of Pandu, and uncle of the Pandava brothers. He has 100 sons, the eldest being Duryodhana.


Duryodhana is the main villain in the Mahabharata. He is greedy, jealous, and lives in constant rebellion against dharma. He feels entitled to the throne and so employs various ways to get rid of the Pandava brothers.

The Main Story of the Mahabharata

The story of the Mahabharata spans over about four generations of a complicated family tree, but it is mainly about the rivalry between two bands of brothers, the Pandavas and the Kauravas for the throne.

The story culminates in the Kurukshetra War, which is the battle for the Hastinapura throne.

The Previous Generations

King Vichitravirya of the Hastinapura Kingdom passed away before having any sons, so Vyasa, who was his stepbrother, was arranged to impregnate the king's two wives and a maid. Thus three sons were born. Dhritarashtra was the son of the first wife, Pandu was the son of the second wife, and Vidur was the son of the maid.

Dhritarashtra was born blind and this handicap meant that he could not become the King. Dhritarashtra had 100 sons and one daughter. His oldest is Duryodhana. Together, the children of Dhritarashtra are called the Kauravas.

Instead of Dhritarashtra, Pandu was crowned as King. Pandu had five children from Kunti and Madri, his two wives: Yudhistira, Arjuna, Bhima, Nakula, and Sahadeva. They are the Pandavas.  

As a King, Pandu was successful in expanding by conquering the surrounding area and things were running smoothly. At one point, he decided he needed a break and went into the forest to spend time with his wives, so he asked his elder brother, Dhritarashtra, to rule in his place during his absence.

Rivalry Between the Pandavas and Kauravas

Several years later Pandu and Madri died, and so Kunti returned to the Kingdom with the five sons. Pandu's sons rejoined the palace, but they did not get along well with Dhritarashtra's sons.

One day there was a public skill exhibition of the princes and the hostile rivalry between the cousins became plain as the citizens watched a mace fight between Duryodhan, the eldest of the Kaurava brothers and Bheem, the third of the Pandava brothers. The fight went too far.

This was followed by archery duel between Karna and Arjuna, the second brother of the Pandavas. Arjuna mocked Karna for his low status. Karna, a great archer himself, sided with Duryodhan because of his rivalry against Arjuna.

At this time, the public started to raise concerns as Dhritarashtra was supposed to have the throne only in trust for his brother Pandu. To avoid unrest, Dhritarashtra declared Yudhishthir, the eldest of the Pandavas, the crown prince.

The Pandavas go into Hiding

Duryodhan became unhappy and jealous because he perceived that he had the right to be the crown prince, so he arranged a plot to have the Pandavas killed. He sent them to attend a party at a palace in a nearby town and set the palace on fire.

The Pandavas were alerted to this plan and so prepared. The palace was burnt and the Pandavas and their mother, Kunti, were thought to have died but only went into hiding.

The Pandavas and Kunti disguised themselves as poor Brahmins and went from village to village begging for food. During these wanderings, Bheem killed two demons and married a demoness.

Marriage to Draupadi

One day, they heard of a ceremony to choose a suitor for the princess of Panchal, Draupadi. Draupadi was known all around the country for her beauty, and all princes had gathered to compete for her hand.

However, the condition to marry her was nearly impossible to achieve and required very good archery skills. After all the princes failed, Arjuna stepped forward and did the task successfully in one attempt, thus winning Draupadi's hand.

The Pandava brothers brought Draupadi home and called out for their mother, Kunti, "Mother, come and see what we've brought back today." Thinking that they were bringing alms, she said "Whatever it is, share it among yourselves". Because of this incident, Draupadi became the wife of all five Pandavas.

Return to Hastinapur

After this, the Pandavas and Kunti returned to the Hastinapur Palace where Dhritarashtra made a show of rejoicing that they were still alive. He gave them a large piece of the kingdom to settle in and rule over.

The Pandavas created a new kingdom there despite the barrenness of the land. This kingdom was called Indraprastha.

Dice Game

Duryodhana was unhappy to see the Pandava's new kingdom become so prosperous, so he invited Yudhisthir to join him for a dice game. Yudhisthir staked everything on the game and eventually it all including his entire wealth, kingdom, brothers, himself, and Draupadi.

Draupadi was dragged into the hall and was humiliated by the attempt to undress her by one of the Kauvaras. At this point, Krishna who is the 8th avatar of the god Vishnu intervened and protected Draupadi. Upon hearing this, Dhritarashtra decided to return what the Pandavas had waged.

The Pandavas then lost another game of dice to Duryodhana, which sent them into exile for 12 years plus one more year. The rules of the exile were that if they were to be discovered during the last year, they would have to repeat the exile.

The Exile

During the twelve years of exile, the Pandava brothers traveled widely and acquired celestial weapons. After twelve years, they went into hiding for one year where they lived and served in the Virat Kingdom.

At the end of the exile, the Pandava brothers gathered their allies and went to war against the Kauravas.

The Kurukshetra War

Arjuna was initially hesitant to go to war because the enemies were his own family, including his great-grandfather who had brought him up, his teachers, and his cousins. He expressed his dilemma to Krishna by saying "What good is a kingdom that's gained at the cost of their lives?"

The following philosophical discourse is known as the Bhagavad Gita. It is considered a very important ancient story and is the basis of many Hindu beliefs. This discourse from Krishna gave Arjuna the strength to proceed with the war.

The scale of the war had never been seen before. The army of both sides totaled almost four million warriors. There were thousands of horses and elephants as well. After 18 days, the Pandavas achieved victory over the Kauvaras, but with numerous casualties.

The Bhagavad Gita

As mentioned previously, the Bhagavad Gita is a section of the Mahabharata where Krishna gives advice to Arjuna about the moral dilemma of going to war against his own people.

Through the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna explained to Arjuna the importance of fulfilling his duty as a Kshatria (warrior) to uphold dharma. Various essential Hindu principles such as karma (cause-effect), bhakti (duty), and moksha (enlightenment) are also discussed within it.

The Bhagavad Gita's message of selfless action is said to have inspired Indian independence movement leaders including Mahatma Gandhi.

Mahabharata Festival

The Mahabaratha festival is held every December at Kurukshetra in Haryana, which is believed to be the site of the great war in the story. The festival commemorates the day when Krishna recited the Bhagavad Gita to Arjuna.

During this festival, activities include the discussion and recitation of the Bhagavad Gita, as well as dances and performances based on the Mahabharata.

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